This blog was kindly contributed by Dr Monika Nangia, Director of Student and Academic Services at SOAS, University of London.
When designing digital strategies, universities must recognise the importance of enabling social connections among learners. Universities can go some way to achieving this by investing in building innovative and new digital platforms and tools.
Universities have transitioned from traditional modes of delivering lectures and tutorials in person to delivering the content online with commendable success. Unsurprisingly, despite the engaging content and styles of online learning, students miss the social and in-person aspects of learning and this leaves them feeling unhappy, isolated and disillusioned. Arguably students are most productive when they are involved in a community and feel a sense of belonging. A year on, many are craving social interaction with their peers and tutors – a hallmark of an excellent student experience.
A significant rise in mental health issues among young people since the start of the pandemic in March 2020 has been widely reported, including polling by HEPI that indicates the effects of the pandemic on students’ mental health. Although the Government acknowledges the impact of the pandemic on young people’s mental health, its primary focus has been on securing the physical wellbeing with stricter measures around asymptomatic testing and self-isolation. In contrast, universities are dealing with students who are suffering from the impact of social isolation, concern for their future career prospects and, possibly, struggling with trauma induced from the loss or serious illness of loved ones.
As learning and teaching moved online, the course structures, content and assessment styles remained largely the same as in a face-to-face delivery model. Over the past year, there have been several attempts at pedagogic innovation to make the programmes more attractive online, but students have missed the opportunity to build relationships, learn from their peers and produce work they have confidence in. They lacked social spaces to build meaningful connections with other learners which underscore their university experience.
So, what can universities do to support students to navigate their academic journey and build lifelong relationships while being almost entirely online?
The sector is continuously exploring new ways of adapting to this change and is experimenting with improved online modes of student engagement. However, despite some good examples of planned online social interactions, they are not yet widespread and fully embraced. New ideas are largely constrained by the quality of the digital platforms in use. Then there are connectivity and accessibility issues that can act as a dampener. More importantly, what is lacking is the ‘social models of online learning’ when delivering academic content. Accessible digital platforms should allow for all forms of engagement with students using content, interactivity and learning materials in creative ways.
Building strong foundations on which to support the social aspects of learning online at the early stages of a student journey is critical to student success. We must remember, digital platforms are integrated in Gen Z’s way of socialising.
When students arrive on campus, whether they are new or continuing, they would normally get to meet with other students, make new friends, share their interests and experience new activities which help bond their friendships. This natural process of meeting new people helps create a sense of belonging and inevitably improves student engagement, wellbeing and mental health.
Our learning community is consuming academic content in very different ways. We assume students develop their experiential knowledge, hone their research skills and engage deeply with their studies in traditional ways. The reality is that they might be adapting to new ways of engaging with the learning content. Depending on which time zones they are in around the globe, they will decide how and when to listen to the online lectures. Some might prefer to engage proactively, whereas others might prefer to switch off their videos during live sessions or simply download them for later viewing, thus creating another layer of separation from their learning experience.
Secondly, we might find that the ‘Netflix generation’ is downloading and binge-watching pre-recorded lectures. Alternatively, they might be waiting for several weeks before engaging with the entire course at a later stage close to assessment period. We know that students are likely to be selective in their approach to engaging with the academic content but with additional subject specific social interactions online reinforcing the learning, their performance and achievements will increase considerably.
Improving student engagement and wellbeing with online learning requires measuring the level of engagement at the outset. Herein lies the challenge because this is not easy to quantify. Tracking student attendance by capturing data when they log in to the learning portal is straightforward. However, such standard attendance monitoring methods are flawed. They might suggest a certain level of student interaction with online learning but capturing their engagement with online learning, especially if they switch off their videos and are passive listeners, is not that simple. How this is managed certainly needs further consideration especially as this makes it harder to capture early signs of disengagement for students who may be at risk of dropping out. This also raises serious safeguarding issues where it would be difficult to identify and target early intervention support for students who might be victims of domestic abuse or sexual and gender-based violence.
Relationships are important, online and on campus. We know that student success is interminably linked with a sense of belonging, personal wellbeing, self-confidence and achievement. Friendships are crucial, particularly in the first year, as the 2019 Insight Report by Unite Students shows. Current practices of delivering online learning on our digital platforms are still quite restrictive in their ability to foster relationships and create learning communities, as they would emerge on campus.
Creating safe spaces for learners where they can communicate openly and freely in a risk-free environment humanises the online learning experience. Social presence online relies on being able to express one’s emotions without fear which in turn helps in building relationships. For instance, monitoring the tone of the social content in the chat may enable the tutors to create the safe space for discussions without necessarily having sight of the body language. These safe spaces allow for the social connections to grow as the learners gather, connect, hang out and joke around. They feel part of a community of (online) learners.
Our success lies in building strong foundations for the ‘social models of online learning’ as part of the innovation in pedagogy. It will inevitably enhance student experience, reduce attrition and improve student success.